Today I encountered a problem somewhat common to those writing history: just as I was finalizing my post on the historical memory of the Liberty Place monument in New Orleans, I found someone who had written a fairly similar post, and not two months earlier. Rather than scrap my post all together, I did some editing and added some additional information, which I hope readers will find interesting. I happened upon this blog, which I encourage you to check out if you are interested, because I was looking for this picture in particular:
Photo credit: Matt Toups, via nolatourguy.com.
The act of vandalism seen above was successful in robbing a white supremacist of a potent photo-op, but it is also emblematic of just how divisive a physical remnant of our past can be. Erected originally with political reasons in mind, the Liberty Place monument has remained a flashpoint of controversy, much more so than other monuments built in the heyday of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, a cultural and political movement that not only venerated the ideals and legacy of Confederate veterans, but also fueled the success of Bourbon Democrats who meticulously undid the civil rights protections afforded to black citizens during Reconstruction. For these reasons, the monument represents much more than just its namesake event.
The “Battle” of Liberty Place was essentially a coup in which the White League of New Orleans deposed the state’s Republican governor by force. The 1872 election cycle, like many during the period, was one fraught with accounts and allegations of voter fraud and intimidation at the polls. In the gubernatorial contest, both the Republicans and Democrats declared their side the victor (though it is hard to imagine a legitimate Democratic victory at a time when a significant percentage of the black vote was needed to win office), creating a stalemate that drug on for two years. In rural Louisiana, branches of the White League perpetrated the Colfax and Coushatta massacres to ensure the recognition of Democratic candidate John McEnery. Rather than pursuing such outright violence, assassination, and mayhem to claim the election, the White League in New Orleans organized an impromptu army on the morning of September 14, 1874 to seize the government of Louisiana itself. The battle was reminiscent of the Civil War, with units of the White League engaging a defensive, racially integrated State Militia and Metropolitan Police force. Hours into the fighting, the White League was able to flank their opponents and seize the Cabildo (still the seat of government at the time) and Arsenal. The Republican governor elect, William Pitt Kellogg, and General James Longstreet, commander of the militia and police force in the battle, took refuge in the federal customhouse, a building that the White League was rightfully wary of taking by force. Three days later, federal troops arrived in New Orleans and the White League capitulated. As with the Lost Cause movement’s later reinterpretation of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the White League found a way to interpret their surrender to federal forces as a moral victory.
The 1880s and 1890s were a period of celebration for Confederate heroes and ideals, as their 1865 defeat became a distant memory after the end of federal Reconstruction. The cultural and political movement referred to as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy redefined the Civil War experience, and in doing so erased from the public consciousness the defeat of the Confederacy and emphasized victory over black politicians and the federal imposition of civil rights protections. In 1889, the United Confederate Veterans organization was founded in New Orleans, growing steadily into a large, national organization by the turn of the twentieth century and becoming a strong force for redefining the South’s relationship with the Civil War. Monuments were also constructed on a grand scale. Tivoli Circle became Lee Circle; Jefferson Davis (who was temporarily interred in Metairie Cemetery after his death in New Orleans) and P.G.T. Beauregard were commemorated with statues as well. But the 1891 monument to Liberty Place is different: it does not honor a gallant warrior or statesman who served a lost cause, instead it commemorates a victory that was seen by many white New Orleanians as the de facto, if not official, end of Reconstruction. To those on the losing side of the Democratic takeover of government after Reconstruction, the black citizens who saw their civil rights disappear in successive redrafts of the state constitution, the monument memorializes the beginning of Jim Crow.
The original location and appearance of the Liberty monument at the foot of Canal Street. Photo credit: The Times Picayune.
The Monument is Updated
In 1934, the Liberty obelisk received the first of many updates. Perhaps feeling that the monument’s inscription was not explicit enough, city leaders (specifically “The Ring,” also known as the Regular Democrats, a conservative political machine that ran New Orleans for several decades) added an amendment to emphasize exactly what the monument commemorated. An inscription was added to the monument that read: “United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election in November 1876 recognized white supremacy and gave us our state. McEnery and Penn, having been elected governor and lieutenant governor by the white people, were duly installed by the overthrow of the carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers Gov. Kellogg (white) and Lt. Gov. Antoine (colored).”
By the 1970s, however, New Orleans and the nation were changing. In 1974 the plaque below was placed nearby the monument, though many in the city wished that the monument itself would simply go away.
The text of this plaque, erected to give the Liberty Place monument greater context, is rather interesting. Photo credit: The Times Picayune.
In 1981, Dutch Morial, the city’s first black mayor, ran into opposition in his attempt to have the monument taken down and instead had it surrounded by tall shrubs and the 1934 addition covered with a slab of granite. In 1989, street repairs and the construction of a shopping center forced the monument’s relocation to a storage facility, where many in city government hoped to keep it indefinitely. However, in 1991 a David Duke supporter grew impatient with the city’s lack of energy in seeing the monument reinstalled. Since federal funds had been used in the street improvements, the law stipulated that the historic monument be returned to a historically accurate location.
Enter David Duke: The 1993 Rededication
It is impossible to discuss the events of 1993 without an understanding of David Duke’s role in the controversy, and the role of the monument in his career. David Duke’s entrance into state politics was an embarrassment to many in Louisiana, though it is important to note that however controversial, many Louisianans also repeatedly voted for him throughout his brief political career. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Duke’s family moved quite a bit before settling in Louisiana. During his college years at LSU, from 1968 to 1974, Duke became active in the Klan and frequently appeared on campus in his Nazi uniform. After several unsuccessful attempts to enter politics as a Democrat on the state and national level (Duke participated in the New Hampshire presidential primary), and amid accusations of mismanaging Klan funds, Duke began to change in the late 1970s. Lawrence N. Powell gives an excellent biography of Duke up to 1992 in Troubled Memory: Anne Levy, The Holocaust, and David Duke’s Louisiana (2000), including this interesting description of Duke during his post-plastic surgery metamorphosis:
“Duke’s narcissism added to his growing list of internal enemies. For the finale of a 1979 Klan National Leadership Meeting in Metairie, the Grand Wizard came on stage Bare-chested and clad in shorts and started lifting weights to show off his new physique. ‘It was all people could do to avoid laughing,’ said [an attendee]. A few years earlier, under the pseudonyms James Konrad and Dorothy Vanderbilt, Duke authored a “sexual self-help book” for women called Finders Keepers, crammed with helpful advice about vaginal contraction exercises, oral and anal sex, and adultery. Steeped in traditional puritanism, the Klan movement was scandalized.”
A rightward shift in the Republican Party provided a coded language that brought racial undertones to social issues, which Duke adapted to easily. Duke left the Democratic Party for the Republican, and won a seat in the Louisiana legislature with the aid of generous out of state contributors such as the Liberty Lobby, a white supremacist organization. In 1991, Duke capitalized on the Republican Party’s swing to the right to take the Republican nomination for governor from the moderate incumbent, Buddy Roemer. In the gubernatorial race, Duke was pitted against the chronically corrupt Edwin Edwards (one Duke opponent printed bumper stickers that read, “Vote For the Crook. It’s Important.”). Despite winning a large portion of the white vote (55%), Duke lost his bid for governor, just as he had with his runs for Senate and President. He attempted to compete in the 1992 Republican presidential primaries, but by 1993, Duke was in danger of losing the limelight.
When a supporter of his sued the city for the replacement of the Liberty monument, Duke seized the opportunity to return to the headlines. Beginning in 1991, the city council had been working with state preservation officials to find a less prominent location for the monument. Negotiations were deliberately slow, as the majority of the council had little interest in restoring the monument. The council dealt with three contingents: historic preservationists insisted on an historically accurate location, Duke’s supporters argued for a prominent location and the return of the 1934 “white supremacy” inscription, and a large number of citizens, black and white, sought ways to circumvent the federal law that required the Liberty monument’s restoration. The location the council eventually settled on, at the foot of Iberville Street, remains in the area of the actual Battle of Liberty Place, but is also almost hidden from view, being tucked into a small public space between a parking lot and the flood wall, behind a parking garage. As part of the monument’s restoration to its new location, a plaque was placed nearby listing the names of the Metropolitan Police casualties, both black and white.
David Duke held a rededication ceremony for the Liberty monument in its new location on March 3, 1993. Avery Alexander, a veteran of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and a state representative, led a group of monument opponents to disrupt Duke’s rededication. In the heated scuffle that started when Alexander approached the monument, four members of Alexander’s contingent were arrested, and Duke’s ceremony continued.
Avery Alexander being placed under arrest (or more accurately, in a choke-hold) after attempting to interrupt Duke’s rededication ceremony. Photo credit: The Times Picayune.
Duke attempted to use the Liberty monument once more, this time in 2004. Returning to the area from his home in Austria, Duke was hosting a white supremacist leadership conference at an airport hotel in nearby Kenner, and announced his plans to return to the Liberty monument for a rally and speech. The night before Duke’s planned appearance, the monument was vandalized (see first photo above), and the event was cancelled.
The Monument Today
Though sequestered to an inconvenient, diminutive location, the Liberty Place monument remains highly politicized. In the spring of 2012, the Liberty monument, along with the monuments to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, were spray-painted with the names of three black youths, two who were recently killed by police officers in New Orleans, and Trayvon Martin, who had been killed in Florida. Talk of removing the monument completely has quieted, and few other solutions to the problem of an unwanted monument remain (no museum is interested in acquiring it). Despite the controversy, simply removing this monument to the White League, the Bourbon Democrats and the Lost Cause of the Confederacy does little to rectify the heritage of disenfranchisement that was these movements’ most lasting contribution to Louisiana society and politics. As a historian, I am inclined to not want to erase or obscure any past event, but to hope that the memory and understanding of uncomfortable truths only helps to inform a better future. Therefore, I am satisfied, in some ways, with the monument’s current location: between the train tracks, flood wall, and a parking lot, behind a parking garage. That the monument is still standing gives passers by the opportunity to see evidence of an 1874 coup that eventually resulted in the undoing of civil rights protections for black Louisianans, not as a celebratory memorial, but, hopefully, as a warning. However, I admit that the Battle of Liberty Place, the motivations of the White League, and the Democratic takeover of Louisiana in the late 1870s are more than a few steps away for the passer-by who asks, “Hey, what’s that?” on their way back from the aquarium.
Overall, there are no simple solutions to the problem of an unwanted monument. To take it away completely obscures a physical remnant of our past; to leave it provides an attention seeking few with an opportunity to exploit its remaining symbolic power. This is one post where I would really appreciate your comments. Do you think the Liberty Place Monument should be returned to storage indefinitely, or do you think it should remain in its current location? Furthermore, do you think such monuments can serve as reminders of controversial events without being politicized in the present? Please let me (and everyone else) know! I would also be interested to start a conversation on the installation of a companion monument that would give greater context to the Liberty Obelisk.
James Gill, Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans, Oxford: University of Mississippi Press, 1997; Lawrence N. Powell, “Reinventing Tradition: Liberty Place, Historical Memory, and Silk-stocking Vigilantism in New Orleans Politics,” Slavery and Abolition, Vol. 20, No.1 (1999); Lawrence N. Powell, Troubled Memory: Anne Levy, the Holocaust, and David Duke’s Louisiana, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.